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September-October 2010

Reassurance from the unassured

C. Scott Brumley

County Attorney in Potter County

You don’t need the news media to tell you (though they gleefully do anyway) that the economy is rough. With that in mind, we prosecutors as a lot are fortunate 1) to have jobs that 2) allow us to do work of significant public importance. Sadly, neither job satisfaction nor perceived importance of our work can stave off the due dates of our indebtedness. While I choose to do what I do because I enjoy the job more than I need to be part of the country club set, honesty would force me to admit that the country club probably wouldn’t accept me because of my relatively modest income, poor table manners, and abysmal golf game. I’m told that yelling “fore” is supposed to be the exception, not the rule. Thank goodness for bowling leagues.

    Back to the point. I have worried about the budgets in our office and those of my colleagues in the prosecution business for a while. Some are in better shape than others. I hear that there are those of you who actually can afford new file folders and sticky-note pads. Life is good for the bourgeoisie, I suppose. For even the most fortunate of us, however, the economy is about as secure as, oh, I don’t know, maybe … the economy. That prompted me to think about what a prosecutor who suddenly finds himself laid off might do as a career alternative. Defense work and joining a firm are always possibilities, but sometimes job upheaval is a time to seriously consider the bigger picture. In that spirit, I offer five different careers that might be well suited to those leaving the ranks of prosecution (with hopes that none of you do).

Legal analyst

Admittedly, the scope of qualified candidates for this gig may be a bit more limited than some of its counterparts. First and foremost, you must have an exceptional—not a good, not a great, but a truly exceptional—head of hair. As I’m lamentably finding out, the Dwight Eisenhower look may land you a top military post, and in the past even may have been a ticket to the White House, but it’s a deal breaker in the land of pop culture. I have had tremendous difficulty parlaying my self-purported similarity to Patrick Stewart into anything more than the customary “Good morning, Mr. Clean … er, Mr. Brumley” that I customarily get when I walk into the office. Looks matter. Fifteen years prosecuting murderers, armed robbers, and drug dealers simply doesn’t stack up to three years of knowing where the courthouse may be plus a Hollywood face and an Armani wardrobe. Viewed another way, the subtleties of the exclusionary rule are so much more palatable coming from George Clooney than from Willie Nelson (insert your own credibility joke here).

    Additionally, you must be glib with a punch. Most of us can string together two or more coherent sentences. That doesn’t get you airtime. You’ve got to be outrageous in your coherence. “I expect the judge to apply established jurisprudential principles of due process and effectively strike the balance between the accused’s right to a fair and impartial trial and the public’s need to be apprised of its government’s criminal justice operations” invariably will find the cutting room floor in favor of “talk, talk, talk, gab, gab, gab; let’s do this. Bring that guilty sucker [or poor, innocent victim of thug prosecutors] in here and let’s give him a fair trial!” In this biz, sound bites fare better than sound advice.

Critic

OK. Two media-related occupations may be causing this missive to list to port a bit, but hear me out. Haven’t we been exposed to enough esoteric prattling from folks whose milieu is access to a computer, a stock repertoire of insults cultivated from a thesaurus, and an aura of condescension? And to what end? They get free food and entertainment for the express purpose of pillorying it in print, on the airwaves, and over the Internet. Sounds good to me!

    In all fairness, you’ll have to churn out some kind of critical commentary. But here, too, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear the kind of critique that only a seasoned prosecutor could provide? “It’s really quite simple, ladies and gentlemen. I’m not asking you to convict the director of being a bad person. He’s probably done some nice things in the past … though heaven only knows what they might be. No, I’m asking you to consider the evidence. This movie is bad. It’s worse than bad. It reeks like the passenger compartment of a car leaving a Phish concert. It’s so bad that the director must have made it after throwing back the proverbial two beers that seem to cause every DWI arrest. Well, it stops here. You, ladies and gentlemen, are the voice of this community. And I’m asking you to raise that voice and send this felonious flop to the deepest recesses of administrative segregation usually reserved for films based on video games. Good taste rests, your honor.” Or, maybe, in a restaurant review: “My waitress was a woman I put on probation two years ago, but the burger was pretty good.” Either way, the utility of the analysis should be apparent.

Product warning writer

If I’m not mistaken, one of the obscure definitions of “convolution” is a lawyer recommending that fellow lawyers take over a job the very existence of which is necessitated by lawyers. So be it. The time has come to reclaim the utility of the English language and the aesthetics of products that currently look like entrants in a NASCAR event. Are some reasonable warnings about latent dangers of products necessary? Absolutely. But we long ago left behind the age of reason on this subject. My favorite example was found in a routine, lengthy, and relatively incoherent list of product warnings within assembly directions I was reading to (incompetently) create a bookshelf from a haphazard pile of fiberboard slats. It read: DO NOT USE FOR THE OTHER USE. Hmm, useful.

    What I’m getting at is that the work of prosecution tends to demand getting to the point in a commonly understood way. That plainspoken communication might help bring the message home with greater retention. To illustrate, let’s take the warnings on gasoline containers. As it is, we see something on the order of, “Danger! Contents are extremely flammable. Harmful or fatal if swallowed. Do not dispense into unapproved containers.” It conveys the message but lacks gut punch efficacy. Now, let’s try what some of our folks might write: “You know when they say something ‘burns like gasoline?’ There’s a reason it’s the measuring stick, sport. Also, if you can swallow this stuff and survive, we are unable to afford having you join us at happy hour.” Another example might be the mosaic of yellow and white warning labels on a lawnmower. Put someone with a prosecutorial background in charge and you probably would get one label that says something like, “Put your hand under here when this thing is running and … well, you’ll draw back a bloody stump.”

Chef

Some of you may already dabble in the world of the gourmet. But I’m not concerned here with whether you have a $2,400 cooktop in your home and know the difference between spoom and Spam. I’m looking at the bigger vocational picture for my colleagues. In all candor I would have to concede that, left to my own devices in a professional kitchen, I could probably make any of the TV foodies catatonic quicker than a dope case motion to suppress. Even so, I don’t think a transition from the persuasive arts to the culinary arts is too far-fetched. If a professional wrestler can be the governor of Minnesota and a porn star can run for senator, surely any of us is just a catchphrase and a fresh take on deviled eggs away from a career in haute cuisine.

    For those who don’t know their béchamel from their beer batter, don’t be intimidated. Yes, there are words and phrases used in a gourmet kitchen that may not appear on a macaroni and cheese box. That elitism, however, isn’t really different from law. We hear confusing words and phrases all the time like “evolving standards of decency,” “exculpatory evidence” and “do that again and I’ll hold you in contempt,” but we persevere. If you think about it, cooking is pretty analogous to prosecuting. You round up disparate elements of the recipe and mix them together. Sometimes the process is smooth, other times it’s smelly. The result may be a masterpiece or, depending on the circumstances, it may be half-baked. Yet two outcomes are as predictable as indigestion. Critics will claim that dog food would be an improvement. And someone will still have to do the dishes when it’s over. At least if you’re a chef, you may be able to foist that job on someone else. While we don’t usually have that luxury, they do at law firms. They’re called “associates.”

Plumber

Of course, the analogy is almost too easy, isn’t it? People accuse you of being gluttonously overpaid to spend your day up to your elbows in stuff those same folks don’t even want to think about. There is the exhilarating moment when you arrive as the white knight (albeit with a few stains on your armor), riding in to slay the dragon of the belching toilet. Things change after the dirty work is done and the situation is put as right as possible, though. Gone are the kudos. In their place comes the Lysol.

    On the upside, plumbers get to charge extra when they work beyond normal business hours. Try selling that proposition to a commissioners court. Moreover, there’s a bit of a pass on the orderly workspace rule. As a plumber, a cluttered desk (which usually takes the form of a truck or van) indicates hard work and dedication. As a prosecutor, it makes you the butt of jokes about Jimmy Hoffa’s final resting place and may get you a scowling visit from a supervisor. Even the nomenclature is a bit more ego-friendly. Plumbers who do complex and cosmetically-sensitive work are called “master plumbers.” Prosecutors who do that either get called “divas” or someone “from the [expletive deleted] appellate division.” Finally, plumbers get to eschew the scales of justice in their yellow pages ads in favor of a cartoon guy in overalls running with a plunger. We don’t have to have yellow pages ads, but if we did, well, they might not be significantly different.